Sick Carousel: Caring for someone with bipolar disorder
Caring for someone with bipolar disorder is like a merry-go-round. But this is another wheel. Not a merry-go-round that travels fast, and with a calliope for music, and prizes. No, it is not that kind of a merry-go-round; although the people are waiting, there are no prizes, and no one would choose to ride this wheel. This is like a wheel that goes up and around. It is a vast wheel, set at an angle, and each time it goes around and then is back to where it starts. One side is higher than the other and the sweep it makes lifts you back and down to where you started. You ride it each time and make the turn with no intention ever to have mounted. There is only one turn; one large, elliptical, rising and falling turn and you are back where you started.
As a caregiver you’re not just along for the ride, though. Sometimes there is nothing to do but tie yourself to the mast like Ulysses, but more often than not there is something that you can do to help, such as the following:
Learning about the illness. Bipolar disorder is not a Jekyll and Hyde, Me Myself and Irene type of thing. It is a real-life condition like diabetes or asthma. There is no cure, but there are treatments. The more you know about bipolar disorder the more able you will be to help the person manage it.
Helping the person to get help. The manic and depressive episodes that characterize bipolar disorder go away if you wait long enough – though that may be 6 months or more without treatment – but the condition remains, and flare-ups and relapses are bound to occur. Moreover, your loved one is not likely to seek professional help on their own during such episodes; they’re either too euphoric or too depressed to acknowledge or care that there’s something wrong with them. So do not expect the person to take initiative, and more importantly, do not wait for them to get better – they will get better, and then they will get worse again; it’s the nature of the merry-go-around. Get the person to a doctor as soon as possible; time is of the essence here.
Opening a line of communication. You can always obliquely suggest that the person go see a physician for a routine check-up or to address a particular symptom – letting the doctor know in advance your bipolar suspicions. However, direct and honest communications is always best. You can tell your loved one that, on the one hand, they will feel increasingly worse without treatment, but that, on the other, they can also feel better if they are diagnosed and treated. Mutual communication can also allow you to reach an agreement with your loved one in which he or she gives you carte blanche to take measures to protect them from themselves – and protect yourself and others – during an episode; for example, taking away their credit cards and car keys.
Seeing treatment through. Convincing a loved one with bipolar disorder to undergo treatment does not mean you can wash your hands of the whole thing. On the contrary, this is the time when they need you the most; to set up and doctor’s appointments and tagging alone, to make sure the person takes his or her medications, to monitor progress, to keep an eye out for signs of relapse, and to call the doctor – or 911, as may be the case .
Getting ready for an emergency. The calling 911 thing is not, like Public Enemy would put it, a joke. As a matter of fact, it is a very serious possibility. During a manic or depressive episode, the person with bipolar disorder is capable of very destructive behavior – toward themselves and others, as hinted above. In light of that, make sure to compile and keep a list of phone numbers and addresses including doctors, therapists, relatives, friends, and the hospital to which you would take your loved one if need be. Above all, don’t be a hero; if the person threatens violence against themselves, do not try to defuse the crisis alone – remember there is strength in numbers. If the person threatens violence again you, remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Call an ambulance, call the police, call the Ghostbusters, just call somebody.
Becoming thick-skinned. Regardless of what the person says or tries to do to you or to themselves while in a state of mania of depression, remember never to take it personally. It’s not the person’s fault and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it; relapses may take place even if the person takes their medication religiously (and if they don’t, it is your duty to see that they do, as it is your responsibility to watch for warnings signs of a relapse, as mentioned previously). When they seem more reckless, vicious, and cruel is actually when they need you most, so don’t get offended and left them to their own devices.
Being supportive, patient, and understanding. All of the above can be summed up in one word: support and patience. In two words: support, patience, and understanding. In three words: support, patience, understanding, and communication. Let’s just start over. In addition to medical treatment, the person with bipolar disorder needs the support of family and friends. Conversely, the caregiver needs to be patient because even with proper treatment, bipolar disorder is a lifelong struggle. And understanding is necessary to cope with the symptoms, which can be as damaging to the person as to those around them.
And finally. For all the talk of duties and responsibilities, don’t forget to take care of yourself, get help and support for yourself, do not get stressed, exercise, rest, eat well, etc., etc. To quote Bon Jovi, “It's a b%$ch, but life's a roller coaster ride/The ups and downs will make you scream sometimes/It's hard believing that the thrill is gone/But we got to go around again, so let's hold on. ”